Native (Self- and Mis-) Representations in Video Games

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Indian enemies in Cowboy Kid

There has been a long history of misappropriation of other cultures in Western society. Native American cultures frequently fall victim to this as seen in sports, fashion, and art. As a part of this culture, the video game industry has exploited images of Native characters in similar ways; though, over time, they have gradually been converted to a medium for self-expression in many Native communities. Native people are one of the most underrepresented groups in games, and when they are represented, it has often been in disrespectful and stigmatizing ways. The vast and distinct cultures are usually jumbled together into a Pan-Indian stereotype and displayed as “primitive” or a thing of the past. One of the first depictions of American Indians in video games dates back to 1971 with the original Oregon Trail. Since it was meant to be an educational tool, Oregon Trail is not terribly offensive. On the one hand, tribes are individually recognized, and fairly accurate histories about these peoples are provided. Tribal peoples serve as guides and people to trade with. On the other hand, the original version of the game also uses them as hostile enemies, contributing to a long list of games that use American Indians as targets. Subsequent versions of the game corrected this flaw, but the damage was still done and the original use of Native Americans as enemies in an educational tool indicates a common disrespect for Native peoples in the collective unconscious of Western society.

The Oregon Trail was followed by many games that weren’t nearly as culturally sensitive. Indian Attack (1983), Kane (1986), Cowboy Kid (1991), and Hammer Boy (1991) use heavily stereotyped Pan-Indians as the backdrop for their Western-style settings. The Natives are depicted as primitive cultures and are used as enemies to slaughter by the masses. However, Custer’s Revenge (1982) is the worst by far as what many regard as the most offensive game of all time. The game depicts a character based on General George Custer repeatedly raping a naked, Native woman. Notably, the Native woman is named Revenge, creating an objectifying double entendre on the title. The game not only sexualizes Native women but also perpetuates the idea of indigenous women as “inherently rape-able”*. Due to strong protests by feminist movements and American Indian communities, the game stopped being sold. Unfortunately, a large number of copies remained in circulation and was therefore able to be reproduced and further distributed

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Humba Wumba from the popular kids’ series, Banjo-Kazooie.

The sexualization of Native women in video games did not end there. The fighting game Tekken (1994) features Michelle and Julia Chang, half-naked, Pan-Indian women. The first-person shooter, Darkwatch (2005), uses a female shaman as the antagonist who is shown completely naked in some promotional materials. Even the kids game, Banjo-Tooie (2000), is guilty of sexualizing their Native character, Humba Wumba. It should also be noted that this sexualization is not just harmlessly inappropriate imagery. According to a study by Amnesty International, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women of other ethnicities and an overwhelming number of these assaults (86%) are committed by non-Native males. This suggests that the common sexualization of Native women in pop culture is both responsible for and indicative of continuing colonialist sentiments in Western society.   It is not hard to believe that such depictions of Native women—as shown in Custer’s Revenge—are directly responsible for perpetuating beliefs of Native women as “inherently rape-able”. In other words, the common disrespect for Native women in art leads to the same sentiments in real life.

Super_Street_Fighter_II_X_Art_T_Hawk_3julia-tekkennightwolf Thunder Hawk (Street Fighter), Julia Chang (Tekken), and Nightwolf (Mortal Kombat)

Similar to Tekken, other fighting games like Mortal Kombat (1995) and Street Fighter (1993) depict Native men, Nightwolf and Thunder Hawk, as half-naked, hyper-masculine fighters. These two characters fall into the “mystic” and “nature-friendly” Pan-Indian stereotypes that effectively depict Native people as primitive and antiquated.   Since characters in the game are given little to no background or personality, they seem to only be included to add an “exotic” feel to these games. Humba Wumba in Banjo-Tooie serves the same purpose. She is a shaman that speaks broken English, lives in a wigwam, and sports feathers. She has no other function in the game than to cast a spell on the titular protagonist, Banjo, in each level. The character could serve her purpose exactly the same if she had been any other kind of magician, characterizing her as a “background decoration” character as one that is both instrumental and entirely interchangeable*. Her only purpose as a Pan-Indian is to add said “exotic” feel to the game. If this wasn’t enough, the game also negatively depicts her culture by forcing the player to sacrifice a creature for her in each level so that she will cast her spell.

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The scene for Native representation in games improved with the 1997 release of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. While this game fell back on many previously mentioned, Pan-Indian stereotypes, it was one of the first to feature a Native protagonist, which was a promising sign for Native gamers. It depicts Natives as bow-wielding, feather-wearing hunters with other-worldly connections and never really delves deeper into the protagonist’s personality or culture. However, it doesn’t necessarily show Natives to be anachronistic to modern times as the game has a sci-fi setting and involves the main character using advanced weaponry like machine guns and grenades. Contrastingly, kids’ games, Tak and the Power of Juju (2003) and Brave: Search for the Spirit Dancer (2005) depict stereotypes that entirely set the Native protagonist in a primitive past. Furthermore, the inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans is not entirely the fault of the games industry in the case of Turok, since it is based on a comic book by the same name that harps on these stereotypes.

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Cherokee reservation as depicted in Prey

Depictions of Natives in the video game industry changed forever with the first game made semi-collaboratively with American Indians, Prey (2006). This first-person shooter follows Cherokee war veteran and garage mechanic, Tommy Tawodi, on a science-fiction journey to reconnect with his heritage akin to themes in native literature (like Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko and House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday). This game is one of very few to depict modern reservation life, specify the character’s nation of origin, and give the Native protagonist an interesting and complicated identity instead of the superficial caricatures of Natives that preceded him. The game developers set a new precedent by consulting Native Americans for cultural sensitivity guidance and employing Native people to voice their characters, classifying this as one of the first collaboratively made games between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans. The game still exploited the “mystic Indian” stereotype by connecting the protagonists’ superpowers with his Cherokee heritage; however, even this is more culturally sensitive than in previous games, as these superpowers are related to real, specific Cherokee oral traditions and, therefore, metaphorically demonstrate how Tommy reconnects with his culture.

Kanienkehá:ka village as Assassin's Creed III
Kanienkehá:ka village as Assassin’s Creed III

Following this game, Assassin’s Creed 3 (2012) classifies the first fully collaborative effort between Native and Western-American video game developers. The game’s protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, is a Mohawk boy who grows up during the American Revolution. While the game depicts Natives in a historical setting, it is important to note that all of the games in the Assassin’s Creed series are set in the past and the developers went to great lengths to ensure that it was both historically accurate and culturally respectful. The development team had Kanien’kehá:ka cultural and linguistic consultants with them throughout the game’s development to verify information and advise them on the use of certain cultural elements. The game creates an immersive experience of Mohawk culture and even reinforces indigenous knowledge through gameplay by allowing all parts of hunted animals to be collected and used. The narrative takes a look at the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s effect on the American Revolution and examines the colonialist tendencies of both sides of the war. Perhaps most exciting of all, nearly a third of the 40 hour long game is spoken in the Kanien’kéha or Mohawk language.

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Never Alone

While Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 mark important strides towards sovereignty of self-representation for Natives in the video game industry, an even more important step was the creation of Native owned and operated game companies such as the Inupiaq developer, Upper One Games, which recently produced Never Alone (2014) to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The game focuses on a girl, Nuna, and her companion, an arctic fox, as they set out to end a harsh blizzard and save their clan. Along the way, they meet important figures from Inupiaq oral traditions and are aided by “Helping Spirits”. The story itself is narrated by a traditional Inupiaq storyteller. In addition to adapting Inupiaq storytelling to a new format, the game’s visuals are heavily influenced by Inupiaq art. Never Alone brings the concept of Native “visual sovereignty”* to the sphere of video games by creating a distinctively Inupiaq experience and catering only to an Inupiaq audience. Meanwhile, the game deconstructs stereotypes established by the game industry and instead perpetuates an authentic understanding of their people among non-Inupiat.

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Kanien’kehá:ka legend of the flying head as depicted in Otsi

As more and more indigenous people are getting involved in video game development through programs such as the Skins Project, an increasing number of Native-made games are being produced. Around the same time that Assassin’s Creed 3 was released, Haudenosaunee students from the Skins project got together to produce Otsi, a game about Kanien’kehá:ka legends. Additionally, a Cherokee company has begun production on a Cherokee language-learning game, RezWorld, about a man with memory loss, and sub-Arctic Cree game developer, Ernest Webb, co-directed the recently released game, Spirits of the Spring. In the history of gaming, Native American characters were often used as exotic “background decoration” or stereotyped enemies, lumped into a pan-Indian culture that is often stigmatizing toward Native peoples. As the Kanien’kehá:ka cultural liaison on Assassin’s Creed 3, Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer, put it, “Most people in the world today amalgamate the vast and distinct cultures of each indigenous nation into a sort of pan-Indian cliché, which does a big disservice to these cultures who work hard to protect and strengthen their distinct identity as a sovereign people against tough odds” (Venables). While Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 represent important strides toward Native sovereignty over their cultural image in video games, the most promising step toward the expansion of visual sovereignty to games has been Native written, directed, and produced works like Never Alone. This analysis drew from experience with the above-mentioned games.  Additional influences include:

  • Amnesty International USA. ‘Maze Of Injustice’. 2007.
  • *Beebe, Laura. ‘Film As A Form Of Indigenous Storytelling’. 2014. Lecture.
  • Goeman, Mishuana. ‘Native American Women’s Issues Today’. 2014. Lecture.
  • LaPensée, Elizabeth. Native Representations In Video Games. 2011. Video.
  • LaPensée, Elizabeth. Indigenous Representations in Assassin’s Creed 3. 2012. Video.
  • Morley, Julie. ‘A Brief History Of Native American Representation In Video Games’. Cliqist 2014.
  • *Ogden, Stormy. ‘Prisoner W-20170/Other’. Sharing Our Stories Of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence. Sarah Deer et al. 1st ed. Lanham: Altamira, 2008. 161. Print.
  • Sarkeesian, Anita. Women As Background Decoration (Part 1). 2014. Video.
  • Sharam, Charles. ‘Native Americans In Video Games: Racism, Stereotype, And The Digitized Indian’. Project Coe. 2014.
  • Venables, Michael. ‘The Awesome Mohawk Teacher And Consultant Behind Ratonhnhaké:ton’. Forbes 2014.
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